Saturday, January 03, 2004

Rivalries Real & Imagined
Veeck v. Rickey  

Rivalries are a big part of baseball lore. Some team rivalries, such as Cubs and Cardinals, last decades. Some team rivalries, like the Dodgers versus Reds competition of the 1970s when the Redlegs were consistently good-to-great and the Dodgers were up-and down, last only as long as a pair of teams are immediate rivals for hardware. Most individual, player-v-player bad blood, whether it's between self-involved hypercompetitive morally-retarded players like Roger Clemens and Mike Piazza or easy-going pros like Bill Russell and Tug McGraw, tend to blow over after a game or two in the minds of the individuals and forever in the head-hunting (or at least headline-hunting) text of baseball writers.

But in baseball (and beyond) there's a trend that always amazes me: the "survival" rivalry. "Survivals" are a concept forwarded by one of the fathers of American anthropology, Alfred Kroeber. A survival in this context is a behavior, a custom a belief or another cultural artifact that has survived from a past usefulness even though it no longer has a current functional reason for being. My favorite Kroeber example of a survival was the buttons on the end of sleeves of men's suits. They don't button. The majority of suit coats did button before 1905, but slowly because of other clothes worn, coats evolved to not have sleeves that buttoned. But in the buyer's eye, blazers and coats without buttons "looked funny" and tailors put them on even when not needed to feed the customers' need. And because suits have non-functioning sleeve buttons when the next generation grows up, the presumption becomes tacit, invisible, usually unquestioned. It's not just material culture that's affected. When you sneeze in a public place with people who know you, what percentage of the time does someone say "God bless you" or "Gez-und-heit". I strongly suspect most people who say this to you don't really believe evil spirits will occupy your body if they don't (the original reason European people said this). They say it because...er, because...that's what polite people do. Again, unquestioned, tacit behaviors that have no essential function.

Thanks to Rod "The Original Blake Street Bomber" Nelson, I got to read this recent story about Branch Rickey The Third possibly killing the possiblity of Bill Veeck's son, Mike Veeck, from getting control of Portland, Oregon's minor league Beavers. Rickey's grandfather was, as an entrepreneurial trickster-innovator in the majors, rivalled only by Mike Veeck's father. [One of the best management books ever written, especially if you're interested in marketing/promotion as part of your entrepreneurial toolbox, is Bill Veeck's Veeck -- As In Wreck. And if you can lay your hands on Roger Kahn's too-short essay on Veeck, A Season In The Sun, Harper & Row, 1977), read it.].

The progenitors feuded privately a lot and publically a little. That was to be expected. They each occupied a niche labelled by other owners/managers identified as "outsiders", and this put them in chronic competition for some resources. They weren't identical, though.

Veeck liked to understand the rules deeply so he could violate them to his teams' favor. There's a story, researched by my esteemed friend and fellow-SABRite John Pastier, that John believes probably true. It goes like this: Veeck owned a minor league team, and because the rules didn't say he couldn't, had a moveable right field fence; the groundskeeper would move it in when the home team was up, and have it recede when the visitors came to the plate. Veeck liked to break rules, though he would conform when pressed by the authorities -- like Coyote in Southwest Indian religion, he just got satisfaction out of tweaking their noses, and while it was undignified, it got publicity and the fans would get a kick out of it.

Rickey, though, liked to find a competitive advantage and campaign for it with the powers that be while sneaking behind their back to do it anyway. The original Commisioner of baseball, K.M. Landis, was virulently opposed to major league teams owning minor league teams and thereby owning minor league players (a farm system). Rickey co-developed the idea when he was with the St. Louis Browns. If all teams had farm systems, then a team with better-than-average scouting and training could have a little advantage. But when no teams are allowed to have a farm system, if you can build one secretly, you're at an a significant advantage. So Rickey publically pressed the commissioner and fellow front-offices to allow it while at the same time his organization was setting up ownership deals sub-rosa. It was a win-win-win that fit his particularly American spin on Judeo-Christian ethics. From a procedural point of view, he was arguing aboveboard through channels in favor of a change. From an ehtics point of view, while he was breaking the "law", he was concurrently fighting to change it, so he was trying to share the benefits with all his peers. And from a business point of view, he was gaining a current big advantage. Win-win-win.

Veeck, in the American League, and Rickey, in the National, were both interested before other front officess were, in breaking the color barrier that Landis was defending to prevent African-Americans from playing in the majors. Whoever crossed the line first was going to have a strong comparitive advantage (along with a lot of extra grief). Veeck's strategies and rule-avoidance interfered with Rickey's strategies and rule-avoidance, and so they were naturally colliding a lot, and naturally suspicious of each other.<


Veeck, an experienced and successful minor-league entrepreneur, believes the historical emnity between his dad and III's grand-dad is a reason Rickey's Pacific Coast League office is favoring a less-lucrative ownership bid for the Beavers. I don't know if this ius true or not. Veeck is perfectly capable of making it up to stimulate publicity and perhaps change the outcome. Rickey, if he's anything like his grandfather, is perfectly capable of holding a grudge based on something wacky like a conflict 60 years ago between relatives.


Some of these blood-feuds are really dysfunctional. If the Veeck groups bid was really higher, it would be inefficient to take a lesser bid because of something that happened 60 years ago between other people. And this is as true, and happens just as often, outside baseball. Note: I'm not suggesting having some standards against which one won't flex. I won't ever buy anything from Wal-Mart because they labelled "Made in U.S." products they knew were made by unpaid prisoners (slave labor) in Red China, and because they undermine capitalism by practising predatory behavior on American small and medium sized manufacturers and because they apparently practice endemic gender discrimination.

I had a client that wouldn't buy industrial supplies from a high quality vendor because a salesman that vendor had sent out over a decade previously was obnoxious. No one remembered why that vendoir was on a banned list except the owner and even then it took him a few minutes to remember.

A bank my daughter uses called Washington Mutual shares with some other weak-minded organizations (banks, contractors who operated security at airports) a policy that states you can't use an expired driver's license or even a passport as an identification when making a withdrawal. After years of asking questions about it, without connecting to anyone who actually knew why, they finally told me why earlier this week. Turns out that once many years ago, there was a ring of forgers who were able to simply open up the one state's driver's licenses and create fake ones out of the licenses because of the way they were manufactured then. Now, the forgers could do this with all of those kinds of driver's licenses, whether they were expired or not. Expired was only an issue because people frequently threw away their expired ones. This state no longer makes licenses that way, and they keep the expired ones now (mostly) on issuing a new one. Neither availability-by-expiration nor the way licenses are manufactured are an issue in security anymore, but Washington Mutual is Krazy-Glued to this adversarial survival. To hold tellers accountable, they are required to write the i.d. expiration date on every withdrawal. It slows every single transaction by five to twenty seconds.

You have to pick your spots and make sure operating decisions made long ago are not "survivals", behaviors that have outlived their usefulness, like trying to prevent evil spirits from inhabiting the body of that person next to you.

Are there any decisions/prejudices/that's-just-the-way-we-do-its in your organizations portfolio of autonomic behaviors? Of course. But what are you going to do about them?

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